Returning from illness, grad savours degree

Calgary is known as a work-hard, play-hard city and Peter Doelman is ready to “give’er.”

Doelman starts articling this month for Burnet, Duckworth and Palmer LLP, one of Calgary’s largest law firms.

“I’ve got a different perspective on stress,” says Doelman. After all, he has survived brain surgery that many doctors termed too risky or impossible.

In 2006, between his first and second year of UBC law, Doelman was diagnosed with a golf ball-sized tumour in his brain stem. Attached to the spine, the brain stem relays sensory and neural information between the brain and the body. Although Doelman’s tumour was treated with drugs and radiation, he still felt pain and nausea.

In December 2007 Doelman returned home to St. Thomas, a small town near London, Ontario, where his father runs a farm. “I was in palliative care and the nurses basically told me that I would most likely die within a year.”

Unable to sleep much during this period, Doelman would fire up the computer and “frantically search the Internet for a miracle cure, some way to suck the tumour out of my head.”

One December morning Doelman stumbled across his medical doppelganger, a New Yorker who had blogged: “At age 25, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour in my brainstem. I was supposed to be dead by 27. I am still alive. This is my story.”

“It was surreal,” says Doelman. “I posted on his blog and he called me that afternoon about his miracle neurosurgeon in Phoenix, Arizona. Less than two months later, I was on the operating table having my tumour removed.”

After the operation, Doelman experienced numbness on the left side of his face and had little movement in his right hand and arm. It took time, healing and intensive physiotherapy to regain his balance and strength. “Although I’m right handed, I had to retrain myself to become a leftie.”

In January 2009, Doelman returned to his law studies, thrilled to learn that UBC had changed the designation of Bachelor of Laws (LLB) to Juris Doctor (JD) in 2008. Doelman had initiated the campaign to do so upon arriving at UBC. He argued that the LLB degree worldwide generally requires a high school diploma whereas UBC’s first law degree requires previous undergraduate studies.

“Given UBC’s stature as a global university, it makes sense for our law school to adopt the more globally-recognized moniker for law degrees requiring previous university studies,” says Doelman, who holds a BA from McGill University in philosophy and political science.

Now embarking on his career, Doelman is eager to cut his teeth on a mix of general business, commercial real estate and infrastructure financing law. He recently won a Canadian Tax Foundation Award for best student tax policy paper on “improving the urban environment through the tax system.”

“It was pretty sweet getting the award because it meant that my brain function wasn’t compromised by the surgery and radiation.”

Doelman says coming through his own life and death story reinforces a sense of compassion for others, an attitude he will take into his law practice.

“Most people are touched by cancer in some ways, either themselves or a loved one. I’m not that unique or particularly outstanding – just grateful. ”